Writing Subject Lines That Double Your Clickthroughs, Part 3

Using Subject Lines to Improve Clickthrough Rates

Using Subject Lines to Improve Clickthrough Rates

In part 1 and part 2 of this series, we looked at subject lines and the 3 key principles needed to consistently write e-mail subject lines that maximize clickthrough rates; if you haven’t looked at them yet please do so now… I’ll wait :-)

We also began looking at specific things to do and not do that would help you systematically write the higher converting subject lines; that is some checklist items that you can follow to make sure you’re getting more clickthroughs in your e-mail.

This time we’ll look at the rest of the specific items on the “checklist” so you have a complete set of items you can use to really make you e-mail subject lines be a serious asset to your business.

Where We Are So Far

Let me give you a brief reminder of our previous parts. We looked at 6 subject lines Marketing Experiments got via a request to visitors of Copyblogger and their own blog, they were (along with the results when they used the subject lines in actual e-mail tests):

Subject Line Click Through Rate Improvement
Quarterbacks aren’t the only changes being tested in Denver .32% 0.0%
A scientific way to increase your conversions .51% 57.9%
Do your landing pages pass this test? .73% 105.9%
[Optimization Summit] 3 Days to a Better Website ($300 Off Coupon Inside) .37% 14.8%
Learn 3 Tips that made 10,000 pages extremely successful .66% 105.2%
Optimization Summit 2012 – Speaker’s List Up Now! + Save $300 Today .40% 24.9%

We then looked at the 3 key principles developed to help ensure we take full advantage of our subject lines, they are:

  1. Understanding the Purpose of the Subject Line
  2. Understanding the Connection to the Value Proposition
  3. Using Data-backed Criteria to Maximize the Value Proposition

Finally, we started to dig down and look at specific, actionable things that can be done — in almost checklist fashion — to maximize clickthrough rates.

We looked at making sure the subject was clear and understandable because if they are then conversions will decrease.

There are 4 ways to help clarity:

  1. Emphasizing the main point
  2. Using precision in the qualifiers
  3. Using simpler words
  4. Being concise, not using more or less words than needed

Along with examples we saw some testing results to help show why one way is better than another.

Other Things to Improve Clickthroughs

Be Appealing, Be Very Appealing

After you’ve made sure your subject line is clear and understandable then you need to make sure it appeals to your ideal prospect; obviously if you don’t then no matter how much clarity you brought to your subject line your clickthrough rate will be terrible.

So how do you make it appealing?

Well, like with clarity, there are some things that you can do to help get those clickthroughs.

Relevancy is… well, appealing

If your subject line isn’t relevant to the needs, interests, and desires of your prospect then why on earth would you expect them to clickthrough!

Let’s look at example from our original subject lines.

Example 1:

The worst performing subject line was #1 “Quarterbacks aren’t the only changes being tested in Denver” — that doesn’t seen very relevant to a marketing conference about optimization does it; it sounds like it’s about football.

Compare that to subject line #2 “A scientific way to increase your conversions” and it’s no wonder that #2 had 57% more clickthroughs; to the professional marketer a way to increase conversions is tremendously appealing.

Add Some (Urgent) Desire

We all know that urgency is a powerful factor but this is only a subject line so the concept of urgency is a bit loose but it’s still an important factor.

Let me show you what I mean with some examples.

Example 1:

Let start with the winning subject line (#2) in last example “A scientific way to increase your conversions” — this does suggest another (scientific) way to increase conversions although scientific doesn’t always suggest easy and, while somewhat appealing, it doesn’t contain any urgent desire in it.

Compare that to subject line #3 “Do your landing pages pass this test?

Reading that you immediately start feeling like you want to know if your landing pages will pass, you feel additional urgency and desire to find out if your pages pass the test.

That’s why #3 got an additional 31% more clickthroughs than #2.

Example 2:

For this one let’s look again at some subject lines outside the original six.

First, how much urgent desire does this subject line invoke: “Vote for the Next TrainSignal Webinar / Register and Watch On-Demand

Not much I bet. Maybe the “vote for the next” suggests a deadline but not an important one and I mean, if they can “watch on-demand” then they can watch anytime and where’s the urgency in that?

Compare that to “Upcoming Webinar – Virgin Atlantic reveals its 7 secrets to e-invoicing success“.

Okay, not the most exciting subject line but “revealing 7 secrets” certainly invoke more desire than the first one because you want to discover the secrets before your competitors.

Focus on an Important Issue

The most important issue to the prospect is going to be the most appealing – duh!

Let’s look at some examples to illustrate.

Example 1:

Take subject line #6 “Optimization Summit 2012 – Speaker’s List Up Now! + Save $300 Today” — does being able to see the speaker’s list sound like the most important issue that prospects are looking for?

It might be of interest but I bet it’s down on the importance list of most people!

Now compare that to subject line #5 “Learn 3 Tips that made 10,000 pages extremely successful

If you’re a marketer looking to go to an optimization conference would “tips” to make your pages “extremely successful” be an important issue?

You better believe it, you won’t care who the speakers are if you can get those tips!

Example 2:

Look at this subject line “Mobile can help manage your money” — what’s the important issue? Shoot, I’m not even sure what it’s about, maybe accessing your banking from your telephone.

Nice, but I doubt if it’s the most important thing to the majority of prospects.

Now, compare that to this subject line “Aspirin therapy pros and cons, 7 myths about calcium & vitamin D, lentil salad” — it may not sound like much but if you’re suffering from osteoporosis then it’s an important issue and you’ll find it very appealing.

Add Exclusivity

One of the basics of marketing 101 is that exclusivity generally helps conversions if for no other reason other than it suggests that others (like your competitors) do not or will not have access to something you will thereby giving you the edge,

Therefore, it’s no surprise that exclusivity helps in your subject lines.

So, as before, the question becomes how to add exclusivity to subject lines.

While, the answer is not exclusive (no pun intended) to subject lines, the way to add exclusivity to subject lines is the same way as adding it to headlines or offers or other things; let’s look at some specifics.

Get It Only Here

Suggesting that you can get something (anything!) only at one or a few places or that there are only a limited supply of something adds a powerful motivational factor to a subject line.

There is a bunch of ways to do that like putting a specific number into your subject line instead of general statements, let’s look at a few examples.

Example 1:

Compare the subject line #2 “A scientific way to increase your conversions” with subject line #5 “Learn 3 Tips that made 10,000 pages extremely successful“.

In the first one, there is nothing to remotely suggest exclusivity whereas, in the second one, the number 3 has some implication that you will learn 3 tips and subconsciously many people add “that others won’t know unless they go to the conference” — that’s part of why the second subject line had 24% more clickthroughs.

If you’re good at understanding motivations for feelings like many marketers are, then you’ll “feel” the difference — and even the difference between say “Learn Some Tips …” and “Learn 3 Tips…” the second one has an additional pull that the first one doesn’t have.

I call this “Emotional Gravity”.

Example 2:

Now, take the subject line “Merchant Account with REBATE“, does it have any exclusivity or imply some “only” factor?

Well, maybe, because maybe they are the only merchant account that provides rebates but, in general, many prospects probably won’t know that and they didn’t say it in the subject line so it’s, at best, weakly exclusive.

Now compare that to “Upcoming Webinar – Virgin Atlantic reveals its 7 secrets to e-invoicing success“, do you see how the using the Virgin Atlantic brand name adds a measure of exclusivity to the subject line; something like “only Virgin Atlantic knows this” and you could be one of the few outside the company who learns those secrets.

If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It

Like in the last example, having a recognized brand name in your subject line makes it more exclusive; this is why you see company and product names used.

Let me show you another example. This one was a split test that took the exact same subject line but added a brand known to the ideal prospects.

Example 1:

Exclusive First Look at New Products, Technologies and More” was compared to “[IADC 2011] Exclusive First Look at New Products, Technologies and More” and just adding the brand IADC to the subject line got 8% more people to clickthrough.

That may not sound like much but think about it, just adding a few characters to the subject line of an e-mail potentially meant they made 8% more “sales”, people attending the conference.

Of course, we don’t know that for a fact but on the assumption that they were getting the same conversion rates further down the line after getting the clickthrough, then, if 8% more people got into their funnel, 8% more people made it further and further into the process.

Here’s a simple and simplistic example of what I mean.

Say they sent out an e-mail without the brand name and got 10,000 people to view a sales letter for a $1,000 conference and the sales letter converts at 10%, that means that 1,000 people purchased the front-end product (the conference registration) earning them $1,000,000.

Then, say that there is a back-end product for a $1,000 Elite conference upgrade that converts at 25%, that means that 250 people upgrade and they make an additional $250,000 for a total of $1,250,000.

Now say that they had added the brand name to the e-mail in the first place, that means they would have had 10,800 people view the sales letter and, using the same 10% conversion rate, 1,080 people sign up for the conference earning then $1,080,000 (8% or $80,000 more with the same e-mail).

It would also mean that 270 people would have gotten the upgrade making them $270,000 for a total of $1,350,000.

$100,000 more in their bank account for adding a few characters on a subject line, not a bad trade off!

Again, it’s a simple and simplistic example and there could be other factors involved but I also don’t want you to discount the 8% because it doesn’t sound like a lot.

Add Credibility

The fourth thing you can do to maximize clickthrough rates is to add a credibility factor to your subject lines.

You’re probably thinking “duh, if the offer doesn’t sound credible or legitimate who’s going to fall for it and clickthrough.”

Discounting the success of online scams, as with many things in copywriting, being credible may seem obvious but is too frequently ignored.

Let’s look at ways to be credible and to improve your clickthroughs.

Be Believable

If the offer sounds too good to be true or is fishy in any way then you will be just harming yourself because most people won’t fall for it; this is as true of subject lines as it is on a used car lot.

Let’s look at some examples.

Example 1:

Going back to a comparison we used in the previous installment let’s compare “Our gift to you — FREE Shipping or Now Service Charge” and “Free Shipping or No Service Charge! Limited time offer!

As we said then, “free shipping” doesn’t really sound like a gift and now you’ve introduced doubt in the mind of the prospect about how good this really is.

This is like if that used car dealer said and “if you buy today I’m even going to throw in the tires” — and you think “well, of course” and then you look at the guy strangely and think “is this guy trying to pull a scam?”

Without the credibility, the desired action is harder to get.

Whereas, in the second subject line, just saying “free shipping” without the “gift” part doesn’t detract from the credibility (while it does enhance the offer) making it easier to get the desired action, that is, the clickthrough.

That’s part of why the second one had 21% more clickthroughs (and remember what the “small 8%” could do!)

Example 2:

Using another subject line from last time, look at “30% of Physicians Are At Risk – Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late!” and see how it compares credibility-wise to “Aspirin therapy pros and cons, 7 myths about calcium & vitamin D, lentil salad

In the first one, they are using the common fear tactic but they didn’t qualify it so that can introduce questions in people’s minds.

By that I mean the subject line says “30% of Physicians Are At Risk” but it begs questions like “who says that?” and “at risk of what?” and you never want to have a prospect have more questions in their head particularly ones like “who says that?” which weakens credibility.

The second one not only skirts that danger but strengthens credibility by using “pros and cons” which sounds like a rational, reasonable, and fair assessment.

Be Appropriate in Word and Tone

If the language of the subject line doesn’t match the desired or expected language of the ideal prospect then that will hurt you.

For example, don’t be all formal when the prospect is looking for casual and, vice versa, don’t be all laid back surfer dude when the prospect prefers and expects all serious and formal; if you don’t you’ll lose credibility.

Also, use the language of the prospect, be “one of them” so they feel comfortable and that you are trustworthy, otherwise they will think “who is this guy?” and now you’ve lost credibility.

Some examples of this are…

Example 1:

Which of these passes the appropriateness test “Quarterbacks aren’t the only changes being tested in Denver” or “A scientific way to increase your conversions“?

Given that the target audience is serious, numbers-based marketers the tone and appropriateness of the second subject line it’s clear why the second one got almost 58% more clickthroughs than the first one.

Example 2:

Another set of test e-mail to compare are “If Alfred Hitchcock wrote emails, could he grow an audience by 300%” and “How Blockbuster Express grew its email list 300%“.

Since the target audience was used to straight forward, non-clever or cutesy, subject lines the second email was more appropriate and had 25% more clickthroughs.

Be Specific

In general, the more specific you can be in your subject lines the more credible they will appear.

That makes sense because ambiguousness leads to questions whereas specificity leads to credibility even if it’s false (assuming it doesn’t seem incredible or obviously false).

I wish I could remember the references right now but I remember reading about research where complete falsehoods and fabrications stated forcefully and with specificity were believed more frequently than real truths that where stated in more abstract terms.

Now, I’m not telling you to lie but be specific, I’m pointing out that being specific leads more people to believe you and makes you appear more credible.

Let’s look at some more examples.

Example 1:

Let’s compare the worst and best of the original subject lines for the optimization conference “Quarterbacks aren’t the only changes being tested in Denver” and “Do your landing pages pass this test?

You can see that the first one had little to no specificity while the second one was very specific by saying “this test”; that’s a single, very specific test which one might expect to find out about when opening the e-mail or clicking through to some Web site.

The sheer fact that they have a specific test and appears to be ready to show it to you instantly makes for more credibility and is part of why the subject line had about 106% more clickthroughs.

Example 2:

Comparing “Won’t Mom Be Delighted!” with “Design Your Own eBook Cover in 10 Easy Steps With Microsoft 2010” you can see that the first one again has little to no specificity and almost makes you wonder if it’s a scam while the second one is filled with specificity — design an e-book cover, 10 easy step, Microsoft 2010, quite a lot of specificity and credibility.


When it’s all said and done there are some concrete, actionable ways you can improve your e-mail subject lines to improve conversions

Always remember to follow the 3 principles:

  1. Understand the functional purpose of your subject line so you can convert the prospects attention into interest
  2. Understand the connection between the subject line and the value proposition
  3. Use research data-backed criteria, in the form of the “checklist items” to maximize the value proposition

When creating, reviewing and editing a subject line make sure you follow this list of proven ways to get higher clickthrough rates.

Clarity Trumps Everything

  1. Emphasize the Main Point
  2. Use Precision in Your Qualifiers
  3. Simple is Better
  4. Be Concise

Be Appealing, Be Very Appealing

  1. Relevancy is… appealing
  2. Add Some (Urgent) Desire
  3. Focus on an Important Issue

Add Exclusivity

  1. Get It Only Here
  2. If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It

Add Credibility

  1. Be Believable
  2. Be Appropriate in Word and Tone
  3. Be Specific

Follow this advice and, who knows, you too may double your clickthrough rate or do even better!

I’ve mentioned them a few times but I can’t overemphasize how much I like and appreciate Marketing Experiments.

All the research results I used in this series came from the wealth of information they have available on their site. I’ve added my take and my opinions based upon my own experiences but if there is anything you don’t like or that you take issue with then blame me and credit Marketing Experiments for all that’s good.

Share you results and opinions below or I’ll assume you agree 100% with what I say about e-mail subject lines and clickthrough rates :-)

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